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The honey bee - a unique insect The honey bee is one of the most well known insects in the world; even with occasional mistakes we can all identify the honey bee. It is one of the insects we are familiar with when growing up; in cartoons, advertisement and when we go outside, for millennia the bee has been humanity’s constant companion.

Humans have for a long time worked with Apis mellifera, with which we have a special and perhaps demanding relationship. The remarkable characteristics of this species, its value to human beings, and consequent (over) exploitation all demand greater attention.

The honey bee colony A honey bee colony reaches its most populous in early summer, at around the time of the longest day. At this point, the hive consists of three types of individual bee - the queen, worker bees and drones. Typically, there is one queen - the only reproductive animal in the colony - between 40,000 to 60,000 worker bees (sterile females), and some hundred drones which are the only males in the colony.

Photos: © BASF SE

A queen may live to the age of 3-4 years, but will be typically replaced by the beekeeper after 2 years. A worker bee in summer lives for a brief six weeks, while a drone’s life expectancy extends to a few months.

2 mm

The dynamic worker bee After hatching, a worker bee passes through several distinct life stages, each to fulfil a function essential for the hive. The worker bee begins life with a colony cleaning period; the bee then develops wax glands and becomes a honey comb producer. Next, the worker becomes a nurse bee and cares for the brood (embryo/egg, larva and pupa stages of the honey bee). Following the nurse stage, the worker becomes a colony guard and aggressively defends the colony. In the last period of its life the worker bee assumes the responsibility of a forager and collects pollen and nectar for the hive. The multiple stages of the worker bee’s life are essential for maintaining the colony and the hive, the process is ‘genetically fixed’. The changes in its life cycle are communicated through chemical stimuli.

A portrait of a honey bee A honey bee has 2 compound eyes with thousands of individual sections, and three additional simple eyes called ‘ocelli’. The honey bee can see colours, and the thousands of lenses enable a panoramic view ideal for locating flowers.

200 µm

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Pollinators and agriculture

Profile for ECPA

Pollinators & Agriculture  

Agricultural productivity and pollinator protection - Around 70% of the world’s most produced crop species rely to some extent on insect pol...

Pollinators & Agriculture  

Agricultural productivity and pollinator protection - Around 70% of the world’s most produced crop species rely to some extent on insect pol...